Tag Archives: free verse

Review: “Frozen Charlotte” by Susan de Sola

Frozen Charlotte

Susan de Sola’s ‘Frozen Charlotte’ is a book of strong poetry, both formal and free verse, collected after prior publication in 30 publications as diverse as Able Muse, Ambit, American Arts Quarterly, Amsterdam Quarterly… and The Dark Horse, and Light, and Measure. One of the pieces in this collection, ‘Twins’, has already been reprinted in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Families and Other Fiascoes’.

Her casual comfort with verse forms is shown in the last poem of the book, ‘Bounty’:

The fruit flies find our fruit, they slip
beneath the lid, a silver dome.
The dark fruit scent has drawn them in,
no other lures them out again.
They settle on apples, puckered figs,
they gorge in perpetuity,
may never fly back to their home,
(if they have ever had a home).
An allegory of choice? Well, yes–
in that we have no choice.
The fruit is fine, the day is long.
Let us feed, buzz, rejoice.

The poem divides into two pieces: the first eight lines describe the scene, and are in iambic tetrameter with mere hints of rhyme. The last four lines step back and philosophise, and alternate tetrameter and trimeter, the trimeters rhyming.

Personally, though I like the whole poem, I find the last four lines far more satisfying. The change of rhythm is good, but I don’t see any reason not to embed more formal rhyme in the first part. She is capable of sustained rhyme, as in another of my favourites, ‘Holistic Practice’. Here a middle-aged holistic therapist who has failed to create a whole life for herself – living in a one-room flat and with no family – is depicted in ten 5-line stanzas as she comes for a visit and shares pictures of her cat. The last stanza is:

But no, her Boop, he was her treasure;
her angel and her source of pleasure.
“Oh , look, how cute!”–a cat bow tie!
I grin and nod, divided by
a deep, holistic urge to cry.

I will admit that her free verse can be very engaging as well, as in her ‘ATM’:

Somehow, it’s sexual,
the rim crotch-high,
the shuffling buttocks,
the hands fumbling in secret.

Gone the dainty dialogue,
the date stamp in a little leathery
book of records, at set times. Now,
an onanism of cash, walls with mouths.

This is an example of a poem that I would hesitate to modify into a formal structure for fear of losing the way that each short line is a punchline in itself. But for the most part the less formal poems, though they often have rich ideas, are not as memorable as the well-structured ones. Blank verse in itself has no merit for me – Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ rambles tediously, without the need for concision imposed by rhyme. Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ may be long but it is packed with many more stories. It rhymes, and that leaves no room for waffle. No surprise then that with Susan de Sola’s work the longest poems are unrhymed and the least tight.

As for ‘Frozen Charlotte’, the title of the book and of one of its poems, I can only say I am grateful that a page of notes at the end gives the explanation that this was a common, naked, 19th century German doll that acquired its nickname in the US in relation to some ballads. I was unfamiliar with Frozen Charlottes. As a book title it seems memorable but disconnected, as Susan de Sola’s poems are, above all, full of warmth and life.

Poem: “Diatribe Against Unversed Poets”

Heartbeat

Heartbeat – “June 1, 2014” by osseous

Ignoring clockwork towns and fertile farms
Tied to the sun-swing as the seas to moon,
They searched for verse in deserts without rhyme,
Lifted erratic rocks nonrhythmically
In search of poetry, then through the slough
Of their emotions hunted for a trail:

“The scent is cold. Its Spirit must have fled;
The body of its work, though dead,
Has been translated to some higher plane.
Look how the world’s translated verse
Comes to us plain—why can’t we emulate?
Then if the words themselves are unimportant,
If poetry in essence is idea,
And song is wrong,
Rhyme a superfluous flamboyance
(Like colour in Van Gogh),
Rhythm a distraction to the memoring mind,
Then we determine poetry’s true form is mime!”

While in the air the deafening blare
Confounds their silence everywhere:
Before our hearts began to beat
We were conceived in rhythmic heat;
So, billions strong, we sing along
For all the time, in time, our time, the song
Goes rocking on in rhythmic rhyme. Rock on!

This was originally published in Snakeskin, the monthly online poetry magazine that George Simmers has been putting out since the 1990s. He is receptive to a range of poetry, but as his original credo states: “Nor shall we sit to lunch with those / Who moralise in semi-prose. / A poem should be rich as cake.”

This poem is a rant against the vast amounts of blather that have been published as “poetry”, while anything showing formal verse skills was automatically rejected by most magazines over the past several decades. The rant is against poets who are “unversed”: “not experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable.” Why should they be given automatic acceptance, when the skilled were automatically rejected? It has been a bizarre half-century. It has a zeitgeist worth considering.

To focus on the United States as the cultural driver of the 20th century: it has always had an anarchic aspect, from the founding tenet of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – though this mostly applied to adult white males who had a certain level of property. (By contrast, Canada’s constitutional requirement for the federal parliament to provide “peace, order and good government” has a social rather than individual orientation.) The US high water mark for good government came domestically with the FDR-and-Eleanor Roosevelt presidency, and internationally with the founding of the United Nations. But “big government” acquired such nasty connotations thanks to Stalin, Hitler and Mao that those who wanted the freedom to exploit others without legal restriction were able to make a case for “small government” and chip away at government structures.

In poetry, what started with Walt Whitman in the 19th century burst open a century later with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and classrooms where every child was “encouraged in self-expression” without penalties for illiteracy. What was expressed became everything; the how became irrelevant. As in government, freedom from others’ rules became desirable in the literary and artistic community, and in the hippie movement, and the innovative business start-ups of Silicon Valley. There were undoubted benefits… but in literature, the suppression of poetic form was one of the less fortunate results.

Poetry takes different forms in different languages, but the forms all have the same desirable outcome: to make it easier to memorise and recite word-for-word. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metre – these are all useful tools for achieving this, along with less tangible tools such as fresh or startling imagery. Metre is viscerally important to us, because the mother’s heartbeat is the background to sensory development in the womb, and our own heartbeat and breathing rhythms continue throughout life. As humans we drum, we dance, we sing, just as we walk and run rhythmically, tap our fingers rhythmically when we are bored, teach small children to clap and sing, teach older children clapping and skipping games. Rhythm is built into us from before birth.

But rhythmic poetry didn’t die when it stopped being publishable. It just went into folk songs, blues, rock, country-and-western, musicals, rap, hip hop… Popular music let teenagers and adults continue to thrive with what they were not given by schools: rhythm and rhyme. This drive to make words memorable and recitable is part of who we humans are. So schools do best when they leaven “creative self-expression” with getting kids to learn things by heart, and to pay attention to the qualities that make it easy to memorise and recite.

New Poem: “Buried in the Garden”

I have a poem published in May’s Snakeskin which (shock, horror!) is not formal.

Snakeskin logo

Buried in the Garden

Now I lie dead, buried in the garden,
And the plants take over.
Two hibiscus bushes grow from my eyes,
Oleander from my nose,
A sapodilla will fruit from my mouth,
Casuarinas grow to sigh from my ears.
From my chest a love vine straggles out
And black crabs live in the cavities of my lungs.
A chicken boa curls around and hunts up and down
And from my private parts grows
That least private of plants, a coconut palm.
From my feet termites are building tunnels out around the world.
So is my body divided, reused, and the birds take hair for their nests
And the calcium of bones and teeth for their eggs
And the body, the body is gone.
And what am I, but a body? What would remain in your sieve if you sift my remains?
Only some thoughts, others’ memories of some thoughts,
Blown away on the wind when the rememberers themselves are gone.

At a stretch, you could claim it has elements of formality. It has a structured sequence of appropriate tropical plants and other creatures growing from body parts – the most visually arresting from the eyes, the most highly scented from the nose, and so on. It has a volta, a turn in the argument from the description of transformation as positive, to the dismissal of that process as being mere erasure.

But are those things enough to make the whole piece word-for-word memorable? Because that is my test of poetry. And I think the answer is no. So no, it is not real poetry. There may be one or two memorable phrases, but that’s not enough. The underlying concept may be memorable, the images may be memorable; still not enough. Only if the entire piece is easy to recite because of the actual expression of the words, I argue, can it be called poetry.

Should you then put your time into transforming the images into formal verse, creating perhaps a Shakespearean sonnet, iambic pentameter and all?

Buried in the Garden (Take 2)

In garden buried, I sprout from my eyes
Hibiscus; oleander from my nose;
From mouth, a sapodilla; a pine sighs
From out my ear; from chest a love vine grows;
Black crabs in lungs, small boa in my guts;
From feet, ants tunnel out around the world;
My privates sprout a palm with coconuts.
Birds peck my bones, my teeth, hair that once curled,
For calcium for eggs and for a nest…
Sift my remains: what remains in your sieve?
Of my whole body I’ve been dispossessed,
Only the memory of some thoughts still live
Within the thoughts of others’ memories;
When those rememberers go, all traces cease.

So we come back to the old questions of poetry: is the expression itself richer or poorer for having been put into verse? And is the formal verse expression (whether richer or poorer) more memorable than the non-formal expression? What do you think?

I wonder if Snakeskin editor George Simmers has an opinion.

Poetry Resources: The HyperTexts

One of the most fascinating – as well as ENORMOUS – repositories of poetry on the Internet is a vast, rambling, straggling site called The Hypertexts. The link here will take you to a listing of hundreds and hundreds of good poets, ancient and modern, well-known and obscure, formal and free, with and without expositions by the site’s creator, poet Michael R. Burch.

William Blake Ancient of Days

William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days”

Want to read William Blake? Or Ronald Reagan’s (surprisingly competent) verse? They’re both here.

Want to read poems on the Holocaust next to poems on the Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe? There’s a whole section on it.

Ancient Greek Epitaphs and Epigrams? Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings? Walt Whitman? Wit and Fluff? Everything you could hope for, with more being added all the time.

Truly one of the greatest resources in the world for lovers of poetry!